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Walking on Eggshells (1)


The colour of our relationships.

It is an old adage in counselling that on occasion the client we are seeing does not actually own the ‘problem’.

They are reacting to or accommodating their parent or partner, who has the real much larger issue. They have unknowingly become the symptom of something much bigger than themselves.

It has become a version of co-dependency that is proving to be a new problem.

By this I mean that living alongside an anxious or depressed person, someone suffering from mood swings, compulsive behaviours, eating disorders or harmful addictions (and I include people prone to fits of anger), is no easy task.

If we cannot avoid them, we must develop a range of adaptive thinking and behaviours to minimise their and our distress. Maybe we want to ‘fix’ the problem.

Often, we can find that whilst we ‘hate’ the problem we still ‘love’ the person.

After all, they are a whole person who comes with an invisible problem.

In making up our own responses to an uncertain emotional landscape at home, we have in effect joined into this invisible problem in an uninformed manner.

Anxiety and depression are contagious

Some of us love the crowd experience, sports, theatre, etc. We pay good money to be there and have a joint experience with others.

We can be affected by the mood of the crowd, a form of emotional hijacking.

I am sure that many of you have met an energy vampire (as portrayed in the TV show What We Do in the Shadows), a person who will infect a room of people with their low mood, energising themselves while the people in the room feel exhausted. Similarly, an anxious person talking fast and at a higher emotional pitch can increase the anxiety in the room (they can even pass on physiological symptoms like increased heart rate!).

At work perhaps this can be moderated, but if your home life looks like this continually there will develop a reactive self.

Co-dependency and loyalty

We like to belong to something bigger than ourselves, most of the time anyway. This is a human trait. Belonging to something bigger and other than ourselves is healthy, in the main. We enact these relationships in many guises. The closest ones are, of course, with family, partners, even partners’ families.

This need to belong is easily projected onto our workplace relationships, the ‘music tribes’, sports teams, etc. It feels good to belong to a group, an identity beyond our individual self.

However, in our close relationships the magnetic pull of belonging and trying to fix this ideal place can have unexpected consequences.

A close relationship can come to look like a prisoner-jailer or earth-moon dependency.

This relationship issue is often visible to those outside the relationship. However, while trapped in the goldfish bowl of a close relationship, we can unconsciously find that we are reacting to our partner’s or parents’ somewhat erratic behaviour.

We can develop coping strategies that seemingly work to keep a remnant of this relationship intact. Whilst being reactive we are in effect playing tennis and waiting continually to return the serve. Our turn to serve first has mysteriously vanished.

This relationship compromise unfortunately has the habit of repeating itself in the wider world outside. It can look like extreme people-pleasing, sorting out other people’s problems, without being asked to do so, and avoiding confrontation or challenging anyone.

In popular culture the ever-repeated The Big Bang Theory comedy series has the character Leonard Hofstadter acting out an extreme version of this. Hiding in plain sight.

This survival strategy, useful at home, has now compromised any sense of agency you have in the world.

The issue of loyalty

When we walk on eggshells, we have little chance of developing a closer relationship. It becomes stuck in the same old patterns, repeating time and time again.

So, instead of seeing the possibility of a close relationship we replace relationship with the mysterious force of loyalty.

For example, if your home life is dysfunctional in some way, your presentation to the outside world, your performance in society, can make it look as if everything is fine. Sometimes guilt and shame can keep us trapped in the world of secrets and lies.

Beyond these emotional landscapes lies a connection still. We replace safe feelings with the much simpler, one size fits all: loyalty.

The armed services, sports teams, etc. use and understand this well.

In practice it should be a reciprocal arrangement. Often, if it has been the family code from childhood or the partner code, it can become unbalanced.

At the core of many dysfunctional relationships lies this sense of loyalty. It keeps it all together, no matter what happens.

Therein lies a bigger issue. If we have unconsciously used loyalty to navigate most of our relationships, when for whatever reason we feel that we must break this codified relationship, it hurts us, summoning up guilt, shame, internalised messages that it is you who are at fault.  Manipulative parents and partners may even use it against you.

Like anger, breaking loyalty is a cup of poison we pour for others but drink ourselves.

The eggshell relationship

Walking around other people on eggshells is tiring, sometimes exhausting.

We enact a reactive position to just about every encounter to avoid upsetting the apple cart of emotional stability (or just to keep the peace.)

The ties of family or partner loyalty prevent us from seeing any other path.

We may love the person (they are on occasion easy enough to be with), but we hate the problem. Their problem.

Reacting rather than responding to somebody else’s mood swings or problematic behaviour is repeated again and again.

It largely ‘works’ to smooth the home rough waters.

The issue then becomes that our relationship with others in the ‘outside’ world is now tainted with the expectation that this could happen anywhere and anytime.

We have lost ourselves in one universal reaction to the entire world, without noticing that it has its use only in some places. Not all, though. Therein lies the issue. We now have only a single relationship model; it can lack nuance or situational change.

Our solution to our home problem has now become tyrannical. We have become very aware of eggshells around every person we meet. In avoiding challenge or conflict, people-pleasing becomes the solution.

As they say, if you lie down in front of people there will always be the one who says that you are not flat enough.

Escaping the trap

The curious thing about relationships is that while we can all hear the music, we mostly sing different tunes. The easy assumption is that our personal relationship style is the same as other people’s. This misstep is crucial to unravelling part of the shadow ‘eggshell relationship’.

If we can become aware of our hidden relationship style, we can gain some agency in our lives. The original person or persons we developed the reactive response to may not change or even recognise their contribution to this dynamic.

We can learn to respond to others better, rather than simply react.

It is here that the therapeutic relationship can give us the opportunity to become more self-aware, thus helping us towards transforming our habitual reaction style to a more nuanced response. This can make all the difference in our new relationships, not only with others but also with ourselves.





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